Photography's Contribution To The Bauhaus School Overview

The Bauhaus School was one of the most influential art and design schools in the 20th century. It existed in three cities: Weimar (1919–1925), Dessau (1925–1932) and Berlin (1932–1933) where it eventually closed due to political pressure from the Nazis. Its main goal was to put art in contact with everyday life. The etymological meaning behind the word “Bauhaus” is “building” plus “house” and its intention is believed to be an effort of working to build a new society. The Bauhaus presented a new academic approach by replacing the traditional teacher-student model with the idea of a community or union of artists working together for a unified purpose.

The Bauhaus was the integration of crafts and art; therefore nobody became a true artist if they don’t master the tools and the materials. The spirit of the school behind its preaching was to turn art into beautiful things with a use and a real function on the real world and for everyday situations.

Even though the Bauhaus School had a huge influence in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography, it also affected photography on a smaller scale. These were disciplines with more legacy than photography, but since one of the central thoughts of the Bauhaus was to embrace new technologies, photography was affected too in terms of aesthetics and techniques. This fact was pretty evident in the photography department of the school where celebrated artists like László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Peterhans encouraged students and artists to use their cameras for imagining new worlds.

To understand the evolution of photography during the 20th century, it is important to appreciate the meaning that photography had in the Weimar Republic during the years of the Bauhaus (1919–1933).

Photography was an excellent form of expression for the modernizing society of the twentieth century. Some avant-garde artists embraced the medium as the ideal way to defy visual statements. Photography offers the possibility of an objective visual mode with which to contrast the subjective psychological intensity of expressionism. These two aesthetic postures became known as the “Nueue Optik” (New Vision) and the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity). Even though photography was not part of the Bauhaus until 1929, its inclusion helped the dynamism of the medium. The main catalyst of this event was the arrival of László Moholy-Nagy.

Photography

During the Weimar era photography was initially used as a documentation and publication tool before it was established as an artistic field of experimentation, ranging from the photogram to the photo collage. Photography achieved the official state in 1929, when it was integrated into the advertising workshop. Before this, photography was just a tool used by the school for documenting the objects and products created by the Bauhaus. Photography became a subject of study after ten years of the school’s birth.

László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946)

We can’t talk about the Bauhaus and especially about avant-garde photography without talking about Moholy-Nagy. He was a prolific artist, innovative not only in the photography field but also in sculpture, painting, printing and industrial design. He was the most influential photographer of the German avant-garde despite the fact that he was not German but Hungarian by birth. He believed that photography offered a universal visual language, suited to the advancing needs of modern society.

Moholy-Nagy created several still life compositions that showed the unique possibilities of photography. The images of everyday objects seen through the glass became a recurring theme, along with the frames and the superposition, as they made direct reference to the glass plate negatives used inside the camera. You can see some of his work here.

He acquainted the term “photogram” which produced images by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light. This was pretty similar to the more popular technique used “Rayographs” by Man-Ray.

Walter Peterhans (1897–1960)

He was a German photographer best known for teaching and leading the photography course at the Bauhaus School from 1929 until 1933. He primarily produced still-life images and photographs of objects and portraits as well. He focused a lot of his vision on capturing the materiality (properties and surface) of his subjects.

He made a supreme effort by teaching not just photographic theory and practice, but also into using precise eyes to focus on the shapes and textures of arranged objects. He was known for bringing out the smallest nuances of every object by using meticulous lighting settings which ended up in an almost “magical effect”. He ended the experimental phase of photography at the Bauhaus, with institutionalized teaching taking its place.

Lux Feininger (1910–2011)

He was the son of the painter Lyonel Feininger. Besides having such a cool name that literally is associated to the measurement of light, he was known for his constant companion — the camera. He used to attend school always in search of activities he could use to transform into his own world of vision. His most iconic image is known as “Charleston on the Bauhaus Roof”, which shows a couple of musicians executing an exuberant performance at the roof of the School. His photographs captured the dramatic instant that perfectly expresses the youthful verve and spirited freedom of the student life.

Lucia Moholy (1894–1989)

Her photography centered on the documentation of architecture and products of the Bauhaus. She was the wife of László Moholy-Nagy and together they experimented with different processes in the darkroom such as the photogram. They published together, but unfortunately much of the experimentations that the couple did were solely credited to László.

Other names associated with the Bauhaus or its aesthetic include:

And last but not least, as an extra treat, you should watch the movie “Man with a Movie Camera — 1929” from Russian movie maker Дзига Вертов (Dziga Vertov). His work is not attributed to the School at all, but the aesthetic makes it a must-see. is really a must.

Originally Published at Light Stalking